Over the summer, Caleb Beckwith and Ching-In Chen will be joining The Conversant’s editorial team. Here Beckwith interviews Jena Osman about her new book Corporate Relations.
Caleb Beckwith: Hey Jena, I was wondering if you could start by speaking to the book’s origins. Clearly Citizens United plays a pivotal role, but was the book a direct response? And if so, what sort of response is it?
Jena Osman: Yes, the 2010 Citizens United case was definitely the starting point for the work. I’ve had a longstanding fascination with objects being granted humanity (see my poem “Dead Text” in The Character), as well as an equally longstanding obsession with Supreme Court argument transcripts (“A Real Life Drama” in The Character, “The Astounding Complex” in An Essay In Asterisks), and that case spoke to both of those interests. The perceptual swing between subject and object (seeing a subject as object, seeing an object as subject) has always struck me as a source of violence and political wrongdoing, but can also be a source of critical thinking and empathy.
This interview by H.L. Hix continues a series that began as multi-question interviews but now has taken the form of one-question “mini interviews.” To ask a series of questions about a book is to keep returning to the book and thus to emphasize its opacity, to regard it as one would regard, say, a painting. To ask a single question, Hix tells himself, is to emphasize the book’s transparency, to regard it as one would a window, as what offers a vista, what frames for us a world. The subject of this interview is Jena Osman’s The Network (Fence, 2010).
H. L. Hix: In Lyric Philosophy, Jan Zwicky proposes that “Few words are capsized on the surface of language, subject to every redefining breeze. Most, though they have drifted, are nonetheless anchored, their meanings holding out for centuries against the sweep of rationalist desire.” Her focus there seems to be the contrast with history, the way words hold their own in spite of history. But as I read your etymological inquiries in The Network, your focus there is on a parallel relationship between etymology and history: words as historical archives, reference not only as designation of a present object but also of a historical continuum. How far off base am I in that reading?
Jena Osman: I don’t think I’m trying to argue that words are completely flexible, bending entirely to the historical moment. As Zwicky says, meanings drift but are still anchored. But I don’t believe those meanings exist out of context—there isn’t some kind of platonic ideal of words lurking out there outside of their use. Words are the product of their usage, and I’m interested in trying to map out those uses. As I say in the book, if I could follow the history of the words I’m looking at, maybe I could understand the history of the times. But I’m not a linguist, so this is more of a fantasy than a reality. The word maps I trace in The Network are thoroughly amateur, the product of my trying to “translate” the entries I found in a book by Eric Partridge called Origins: A Short Etymological Dictionary of Modern English.